Sunday, March 27, 2011

Never forget me

Promise me you'll never forget me because if I thought you would I'd never leave. ~A.A. Milne

Last year, when my horse Little Love was not yet mine and she was still living at a large commercial stable, something interesting happened. At the end of the summer the owners of the barn bought a new horse for their teenage daughter. The big, brown gelding arrived from Germany and was immediately put into the routines of the barn.

After the gelding had been at the barn for about three days, I noticed a difference in Little Love’s behavior. The first time it happened it was morning, when all the horses went outside in their separate runs. I was walking her up to her allotted pasture strip when she called out in a clear and high pitch whinny. I hadn’t heard her say a peep for months and her loud voice caught me by surprise. Her head was up high and she took a few trot steps, peering to her right at the pastures reserved for the barn owner’s four horses.

I heard a whinny coming from the first pasture and saw the new gelding trot to the fence, his eyes fixed on Little Love. She stopped in her tracks and spun around, staring at the gelding. A soft nicker erupted from her throat; low and melodious it sounded as if she was singing. I had never heard her talk like that and when the gelding answered in an equally beautiful tone, low and bubbly, as if he was laughing, I could only smile in wonder.

I didn’t think much of the incident, until the next day when I drove to the barn and saw the gelding standing in his pasture at the fence and staring keenly at the barn. When I passed in my car, saw Little Love’s head poked out her stall window. Ears up and nose forward, she was looking at the gelding. What was going on?

At first I thought perhaps it was the novelty of a new male horse entering the barn, but as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I dismissed it. It was not unusual for horses to come and go at this facility, as it had over 35 stalls with privately owned horses. And why would Little Love feel drawn to this particular gelding when there were four stallions living in the barn? And even when she did express interest towards the stallion, it was never anything like this. There was something special about this gelding.

I asked the owners where he had come from, but it didn’t tell me much as I also was not completely familiar with Little Love’s past. But I did know that she had originated from Germany, just like this gelding. As the weeks turned into months, I watched as the gelding stood vigil in front of Little Love’s window until it was closed for the winter. Once, when the new barn worker messed up the turn out schedule, Little Love ended up in someone else’s run, next to the gelding. Oh the joy of the reunion! There was no amount of electricity that could keep the two from touching each other. They sniffed over the fence and when Little Love peed it sent the gelding into a wild gallop up and down the fence. Unfortunately this behavior was frowned upon and the turn out schedule was resumed in the correct fashion.

It was obvious that the two horses had a connection. And not just any connection; I was convinced they had known each other before. But it had been 9 years since Little Love had left Germany where the gelding had been bought from. Could it be possible that the two had met in their youth and remembered each other after so many years? Who was he and what had he meant to her then? Had they shared an experience? I was fascinated.

How good is the memory of a horse? In a study led by Evelyn Hanggi, MS, PhD, co-director at the Equine Research Foundation (ERF) in Aptos, Calif., horses that had been tested on recognition and advanced learning abilities as many as 10 years earlier were able to repeat the same tasks with a nearly perfect level of accuracy without having to learn the skills again. Not only were the horses able to remember the specific objects learned years ago, they were able to apply those previously learned rules and concepts to never-before-seen objects years later.

Just recently ethologist Carol Sankey of the University of Rennes and her colleagues tested how well 23 horses remembered a female trainer and her instructions after she and the horses had been separated up to eight months. Although the time lapsed in this study was significantly shorter than the one done by Hanggi, and results were similar – horses have good memories. The added twist to this research was the fact that some of the subject horses were trained using positive reinforcement and others using none. The researchers concluded that the “horses trained without reinforcement expressed four to six times more 'negative' behaviors, such as biting, kicking and 'falling down' on the experimenter." Also, after the 8 months of separation, the horses trained with positive reinforcement gravitated towards their old trainer, rather than other people. They also seemed to accept other humans more willingly than the other subject horses that had not received positive reinforcement during training.

Studies such as the ones mentioned above, often focus on learning and the animal’s ability to remember what it has learned. But what about horse- horse relationships? Will a foal remember its mother for as long as it lives? Do buddies stabled together recognize each other after years of separation? You only have to do a search on the subject on the internet to believe that they do, as it seems like almost everyone has a story to share about happy horse reunions. And not just horse reunions, but horse – human reunions as well.

Little Love is now my horse and she lives at a very small barn in the country side. It is the first time in ten years that she has the opportunity to have a social life with another horse. Her friend Col is a Danish warmblood gelding who loves Little Love at least as much as she loves him. Watching the two horses spend time together is my favorite past time, as you can visibly see the friendship and the caring emanating from the two.

But, as much as I enjoy the relationship between the two horses, it also makes my heart heavy. In a few months my family will be moving to another country and naturally I will be taking my beautiful Little Love with me. How will the two horses cope with the separation, a separation that will most likely last a lifetime? What right do I have to even think of separating them?

Horses form life lasting relationships, but only if we allow them to do so. My thoughts are with all the hundreds of thousands of horses that are sold yearly all around the world. Some have been with their peers for years and get uprooted in a moment’s notice; some travel around the world and never have a moment to form a lasting bond with a horse or human before they are sent off to the next barn. And then there are those that live in such pain and suffering and stress that they don’t even have the emotional capacity to connect with another living being.  Just the thought of that makes me want sit down and spend a moment remembering all the hundreds of horses that have passed through my life, many of them which gave me many valuable experiences.  Was I, too, someone who gave them a good moment in time, a positive memory? If we met again, would they remember?  Would they even want to remember?

I have two dogs and I would never dream of selling them to a soul. Nor would I dream of separating them for any reason. Most dog owners would think you crazy, if you asked them to sell you their dog. Dogs are family members. Why do we treat horses so differently? Is it because they don’t live with us, sleep in the same house with us, follow us around, that we consider them more distant, not worthy of the same level of bonding, of love? And how much does monetary value play a part in our feelings or the lack thereof?

I once knew someone who sold her horse to another continent after owning it for over a decade. It was a phenomenal horse and helped his owner become a respected competitor and trainer. She had acquired the horse as a foal and trained it single handedly up the dressage levels. When I heard she had done the unthinkable, I at first could not believe it; what had possessed her to sell her dressage partner? I’m not sure the owner could even believe it herself when she watched her long time friend load on a truck and leave.

The horse flew across the ocean to his new home, but already during the long trip, he fell horribly ill. The vets worked as hard as they could, but the gelding would not get better. Finally, as a last resort his old owner flew to see him, to help heal the gelding’s high fever and lost appetite. She stayed with him for a week and he recovered from his physical symptoms, but the underlying broken heart was probably never cured on neither person nor horse.

I, too, once sold my horse, the only one I ever owned before Little Love. I can’t say I sold him without a second thought, because it did affect me, and still does even if I owned him for only a short while. At that time, it seemed like the logical thing to do, given that I was moving overseas. I soothed my guilty conscious by telling myself he went to a good home, which he did. I have seen him since and each time we meet I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t try harder to keep him with me. But even when I wonder, I know. It was more convenient to exchange him for well-needed cash. Ironically, most of the money I received for his sale was still sitting in my bank account until a few months ago. It was as if I was waiting for something important enough, worthy enough, to come along before my conscious allowed me to touch the money. Or perhaps I knew in my heart that someday, six years later, I would need it to buy another horse, a horse that I did not want to leave behind.

How much do we really know about the emotional lives of horses? Not much. But we know they are sentient being with vast emotional landscape, perhaps even more complex, but certainly different, than ours. I may never find out how Little Love knew the big, brown gelding at her old barn, but does it matter? They know who they are and where they met and I am sure they rejoiced in the fact that they were lucky enough to meet again. I hope that in the years to come I can introduce Little Love to many more horses, horses that will stay in her life for years to come, some perhaps for the rest of her life. Like me.

As what comes to Little Love and her current friend Col, only time will tell. I am selfishly going to take my mare with me to our new home, because this time I am not ready to sell my horse. In fact, that is no longer an option and never will be, because truth told, she is not really mine, but rather I am hers.


Some interesting links: - more on equine research - an interesting article about horse’s memory - a heartwarming video of a woman and a horse who meet for clicker training after 7 years of separation

Friday, March 11, 2011

Naked Flesh of Feeling

How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling. ~Claude Debussy

Do animals have emotions?

Having been involved with animals all my life, I have no doubt in my mind that they do. If you own a dog, cat, horse or any other animal, you know what I’m talking about. Animals are intelligent and feeling individuals; they know things that are not visible to the naked eye, often more accurately than us humans. But it wasn’t so long ago that the majority of people denied the existence of animal emotions. In fact, skeptics remain, many whom draw their conclusions from the lack of scientific proof; consequently the emotional lives of animals has not been researched much in the past mainly because researchers thought there wasn’t anything to study in the first place. Luckily research has evolved and proof is emerging from the woodworks of the scientific world. I guess at this point the question is not if animals have emotions, but rather what kind of emotions do they have.

Author and ethologist Marc Bekoff provides evidence of animals having emotions in his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals. The following story is an excerpt from his book:

“A few years ago my friend Rod and I were riding our bicycles around Boulder, Colorado, when we witnessed a very interesting encounter among five magpies. Magpies are corvids, a very intelligent family of birds. One magpie had obviously been hit by a car and was laying dead on the side of the road. The four other magpies were standing around him. One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it-just as an elephant noses the carcass of another elephant- and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”

Often pet owners who say their pet is happy or sad or mischievous or sorry are accused of giving animals “human” emotions. This practice, also known as anthropomorphism, is widely criticized, and for a reason. as often it is connected to disturbing behavior such as dressing your dog up in human clothes or punishing your horse for something that happened long time ago because “he knew what he was doing.” But when it comes to feelings, why should humans have the monopoly on emotions? Look at the story of the magpies; how can you possibly interpret the behavior of the four magpies in any other way than through emotional vocabulary? The birds were obviously mourning the loss of their conspecific; they were sad.

Recently, I read the book Second Nature by animal behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe and Wild Justice by Mark Bekoff in which they explore the emotional and intellectual lives of animals. Even though I have been a big believer in animal emotions for quite a while, I don’t think I had quite understood the depth of the subject. It was fascinating to read scientific proof of emotions in creatures big and small. We often think that for example animals such as fish or rodents don’t have much going on in terms of intelligence or feelings, but turns out they can have feelings like empathy for each other. Mark Bekoff recounts a study made with rats, where caged rats were taught to press a level for food. Once this behavior was set in, however, the scientists added a twist; when the rat pushed the lever to get the food, another rat in the cage next door received an electric shock via the metal floor. What did the rats do? They stopped eating. Some individuals were known to starve themselves for as long as 14 days. I wonder how humans would “excel”to starve themselves in this sort of an experiment… (I also find it sickening that this was a study on rat empathy, but the empathy of the human researchers seemed to fail as they subjected other living beings to such cruel experiments…)

Jonathan Balcombe in particular writes eloquently about animal empathy, an emotion non-animal people often dismiss as solely a human emotion. But anyone who has ever been close to a horse when they have needed a friend, might know the capacity they have for empathy. And not just empathy, but unconditional support.

Two years ago I participated in an introductory workshop of the Epona method (check out my blog from June 16,2009 Lessons from a Horse’s Heart). At the end of the three day course, I felt like I was at the core of my true self, all my emotions were raw and real. Our very last exercise was an individual session with a horse that was assigned to us by the psychologist. My horse was Geo, a young paint gelding with whom I had worked with before, but had failed to find a deep connection. I was last to go and when it came my time to step up to have a private talk with Kathleen Barry Ingram, the facilitator, I was shaking with so many feelings I didn’t even know where to start unwinding them. It had been a long weekend observing others fall apart and collect the pieces as they made an attempt to re-establish themselves and I felt like an outsider in many respects. There were so many other people at the course who had real problems, people who deserved and needed the help of the horses and humans there. I, on the other hand, felt like I often feel; that I was there to support others instead of to receive support.

I approached the round pen where Geo was grazing at the other end completely disinterested in me. Kathleen pulled me aside and asked how I was feeling. I shrugged.

“I really feel like I don’t belong here,” I said. “All these other people are battling such major emotional issues and traumatic pasts. I don’t have that. They need this, they need the support.”

“So you feel like you don’t deserve to have that?”

“Yeah, I guess so. It’s always like this, you know, I hold up everyone else, but it’s only because I don’t need holding up. Kind of like there is a big pie and everyone else gets a big slice. In the end there isn’t much left for me. But that’s okay, because I don’t really need the pie.” I looked at Kathleen. “Do you know what I mean?”

Kathleen nodded. “But you know what? You deserve your own piece. You deserve this time, this sacred space of possibility. You deserve support, too. Look at all those people.” She motioned towards the 20 odd students sitting in their chairs, ready to observe my interaction with Geo. “They are here for you. Maybe you don’t feel deserving of their time, but they are here, nevertheless.” She motioned at Geo. “And look at that horse.” I looked at the horse, he couldn’t have looked less interested in Kathleen and me. “He is here for you.” She pushed on my back gently. “Now go and see what he has to bring to the table.”

I opened the gate to the round pen and walked in. Suddenly my hands were shaking. And not just my hands, but my whole body was quivering, as if it was a little blade of grass in a storm. Geo didn’t move, he didn’t as much as look at me. I started crying. I don’t know why I was crying, but there was an unstoppable wave of sorrow and sadness inside me that erupted to the surface so suddenly that I couldn’t stop it. I started sobbing, something completely uncharacteristic to me.

Overwhelmed by my emotions, I stopped about ten feet away from the grazing Geo. The last thing I wanted to do was force my emotions on him. Tears were flowing down my face, I don’t think I have cried like that since childhood. I looked at Geo and wanted to leave, to just run out of there and hide somewhere. But just then he lifted his head and looked back at me. Then he turned and walked over. He stopped in front of me. I was still sobbing and it felt like the top of my head was going to explode, the pounding was so strong, so blinding that I closed my eyes. An ache grew in my chest and even though I wanted to clutch my hands to it, I let my arms hang at my sides, exposing myself completely in front of this horse.

Geo lifted his nose and pressed it to my chest. I could feel him breathing into me. I could also feel something else, a strange sensation of lightness, as if this horse I barely knew was sucking the irrational sadness out of me like an enormous vacuum. I opened my eyes and Geo moved his nose to my forehead and performed the same exercise there, sucking away my pain, pulling it out of me and sending it off into the universe.

I stopped crying. Geo took his nose off my forehead. I swear the look on his face was playful. He grabbed the cloth of my sleeve between his lips and pulled on it. Come now, he seemed to say, let’s be done feeling sad.

Without thinking I turned and started running down the round pen. Geo squealed and took off at a canter, bucking and romping around like the teenager he was. I laughed out loud. I don’t think I have ever felt so alive and so light, like I could have perhaps taken off in flight. We ran another round and then Geo stopped to graze and I walked to the gate. The whole interaction had taken perhaps four minutes, but it had been an intense four; he had given me exactly what I needed, his time and his support – his empathy. I came through that gate with a new respect for horses as sentient beings.

Exploring animal emotions brings us face to face with many ethical questions; perhaps the real reason humans have so reluctantly studied this subject. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, right? If we admit to animals being sentient beings with rich emotional lives, how do we possibly justify the way we treat them? What does the current treatment of animals tell us about ourselves? I for certain think about this question on a daily basis. Do we have the right to use horses for our own pleasure? And how do they feel when we do? For thousands of years we have assumed an inferior role over nature and other animals. Perhaps it is time for us to notice and acknowledge animals as who they really are; subjects of their own lives, living and feeling beings

Geo and the other horses at the Epona workshop exposed the very essence of horses. Ever since I had this experience, I have not been able to stop seeing the hidden meaning behind each horse-human relationship I encounter. When we are initially drawn to horses, perhaps it is not the action of riding or training or driving or grooming that touches us so deeply, but rather the soul of the animal we are connecting with, or rather, who is connecting with us. Horses, even the ones that live under stressful conditions, have the capacity to emotionally heel humans. Often we don’t know this when we meet them, but the potential is always there. Horses are altruistic; they give selflessly, even when the human is not paying attention.

In his book Second Nature Jonathan Balcombe tells so many touching stories of animals caring for each other, working together, striving to understand each other, seeking comfort from each other – even in the most surprising situations. I want to share one particular story with you, because it perhaps demonstrates the capacity that animals can have for empathy, even across species. This is a story about Washoe, a chimpanzee.

Balcombe writes: “… Beatrice and Allen Gardner of the University of Oklahoma taught American Sign Language to Washoe. When Beatrice became pregnant, Washoe became more attentive than usual and regularly asked questions (using sign language) about the baby. Washoe had had two pregnancies of her own, both of which had resulted in the infants’ deaths. When Beatrice returned after an extended absence, Washoe acknowledged her return but was aloof. The teacher explained that she had had a miscarriage and signed to Washoe: “My baby died.” Washoe looked at Beatrice and signed “Cry”, then signed “Please person hug” as Beatrice was leaving.”

Sometimes there are no words for what we feel when we are with our animals and it is because emotions are beyond words. In fact, spoken language can even block being able to feel and read the emotions of others. Perhaps that is why animals are better at it than us humans are, they are used to communicating nonverbally. My written account of the moment with Geo doesn’t do justice to what really happened, because there are no words to truly describe the matters of the heart. All I can say is that I wish to connect again and again to that sacred place he opened up in me.


“It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to fifty words used in correct context – no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”
- Carl Sagan